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On the comeback of the cordwainer

Posted on 07 September 2019

On the comeback of the cordwainer

How Melbourne brand Wootten are leading the way in the resurgence of the shoemaker 

‘Never underestimate the power of a shoe,’  Italian fashion designer Giuseppe Zanotti once said. If you’ve ever worn a pair of shoes that made you feel far more impressive than you ever have before, you’ll understand his words completely. Try to deny it all you want, but the right footwear can make you feel as though you’re making an entrance even when you’re making no entrance at all. Suddenly, crossing your legs (purposefully) is a performance; the sensation of turning a street corner as sensual as slowly undressing. In the perfect pair of shoes there’s no need for rose-coloured glasses because everything about life is already great; especially your feet.

But it takes more than just your average pair of imported brogues or boots to accomplish the kind of confidence that transports your style from standard to supreme. When it comes to stocking your wardrobe with quality and charisma you can’t beat the look and feel of properly handmade shoes. Alas, in the years since our city’s once-thriving local shoemaking industry was overrun by footwear brands who mass manufacture, Melbourne-based artisans who specialise in this niche market have been harder to come by. But with thanks to brands like Wootten, not all hope for the future of Australian footwear has been lost. 

Image courtesy of Wootten

With a boutique in Melbourne and recently-opened workshop in Ballarat, Wootten are in the business of bringing exceptional products to Melbourne’s ever-expanding slow fashion movement. In honour of the slow philosophy, Wootten’s team of expert cordwainers and leather craftsmen take pride in producing high-quality footwear and accessories that have been locally made by hand, creating the kinds of shoes that make you never want to be barefoot again. 

To learn a little more about the resurgence of local craftsmanship, we spoke to Wootten’s owner and head cordwainer Jess Cameron-Wootten to talk about the benefits of slipping into shoes that have been (properly and locally) made just for you.

KATHRYN CARTER: Can you tell us about Wootten’s beginnings?

JESS CAMERON-WOOTTEN: Wootten is our family name and pays homage to my father, Ross Wootten, who started making shoes in the early 1970s. The brand as we know it now was launched in 2012 when we rebranded our Melbourne business. Prior to that it was known as Custom Fit Australia. I took over from the previous owner, Australian shoemaker Peter Cordwell, in 2007. 

KC: Your father, Ross Wootten, began making bespoke footwear in the early 1970s in South Australia under the tutelage of Bulgarian Master Craftsman and internationally renowned shoemaker, George Koleff. Did you always want to follow in your father’s footsteps?

JCW: I never intended to follow in dad’s footsteps from a professional standpoint. Whilst always having an interest in shoemaking and leather craft, I actually wanted to be an architect. It was only after studying industrial design and working in a corporate job that I decided that working with my hands suited me much better. 

KC: Where did you yourself learn your craft?

JCW: I did a course in Footwear Production at RMIT in 2007 when I was 23-years-old, the same year I purchased the business from Peter. He then stayed on for about five years and I learnt some of the craft from him, as well as throwing myself in the deepest end. 

Image courtesy of Wootten

KC: What do you love most about making shoes by hand?

JCW:I love the malleable nature of the material. I like footwear specifically because of the complex forms [involved], and the vastness of the variety of aesthetic outcomes. 

KC: When an individual orders a pair of shoes with Wootten, what does the process involve? Do they have much say when it comes down to materials and design?

JCW: Our shoemaking service is split into three different levels, and all options are made-to-order. The customer, with all three levels, has input into the design, through choice of materials and construction techniques, colour combinations and finer details. Level 1 is our Standard Made-to-order footwear, which offers our standard fittings and designs, meaning less tailoring to your personal foot measurements, but you still experience the same quality and receive a hand made product. Level 2 is our custom-made footwear, which uses our designs while also offering the choice of minor adjustments to tailor the fit. Then there is bespoke footwear, made to your exact specifications for both design and fit. Out of all of our options, our made-to-order standard footwear is the most popular. We work out what toe shape and size they are, then choose the style, the leather, the colour, sole type, and all the finer details. 

KC: It sounds like quite a meticulous process. How long does it usually take to make a pair of hand made shoes for a client?

JCW: This varies depending on the option chosen. Standard made-to-order shoes take about 8-12 hours per pair, which takes place over a 5-10 week timeframe. Our bespoke service varies the most in terms of time, it could be as simple as 15 hours or complex as two weeks, spaced out over a period of 6-12 months. This all reflects the complexity of fit and design.

KC: Do handmade shoes have a longer shelf life than mass produced, machine made pairs?

JCW: Generally speaking, yes. But it really depends on how you wear and look after them, and what kind of mass produced shoes you are comparing them to. It really is all in the details, and we try to guide our customers to the right styles, leather and sole construction, based on their feedback of how they plan to wear the finished product. 

Image courtesy of Wootten

KC: Do you feel a man carries himself differently when he wears a pair of shoes that have been made just for him?

JCW: Absolutely. I think when people take the time to really consider their purchase and are involved in all the decision making, they take more pride in the finished product as they feel more engaged with it. On another level, our customers who choose our custom fit and bespoke options are often doing so purely because they can’t find shoes that fit them properly. When you have a shoe made to fit, that most likely translates to less discomfort, and so you feel far happier in your footwear. 

KC: Since the beginnings of the slow fashion movement you say you have noticed a burgeoning desire for individual style, as well as practical comfort and dependable quality. What do hand made shoes offer that mass-manufactured shoes do not, in terms of not only function but also their sustainability and design?

JCW: Individually made-to-order products allow the customer to be involved in all the minute details, both aesthetically and functionally. It also means that we’re not producing excess stock and wasting materials on stock that’s produced just to sit on the shelf in the hope that someone might buy it. The way that we produce our footwear and source our materials means that the longer life and lower impact materials should not end up in landfill quite as soon. 

There is also a psychological aspect to having shoes made-to-order. When someone is involved in the process they are more engaged with the product, as I mentioned previously. And so they are more likely to care for their shoes and have them repaired when they need to be, this in turn extends the life of the product and reduces waste. 

Further to that, the working conditions of locally employed craftspeople are far better than what you would expect in anonymous factories around the globe. So, typically, more care and attention is taken with each individual product when compared to what you might get from a mass manufacturer, where one product alone can pass through 100+ hands. 

KC: So true. As someone who lives and breathes the trade, do you find yourself meeting people and automatically looking down at their shoes?

JCW: Yes I do, but not in a judgemental way. I’m [always] just interested to see what people are wearing. 

Image courtesy of Wootten

KC: Can you tell us more about the materials you work with at Wootten?

JCW: Our footwear is produced from leathers that are sourced from all over the world, depending on the particular finish desired by the customer we are working with. We always endeavour to source materials locally as much as we can, however the decline in the industry has meant that occasionally we do need to broaden our search. Our kangaroo leathers are all from New South Wales and Queensland, our bovine leathers for our accessories from Ballarat, and our footwear bovine leathers are mostly sourced from New Zealand. We also source some calf leather from the United Kingdom, as well as some calf and yearling leathers from Italy. 

KC: What is your most requested pair of shoes, in terms of style and design?

JCW: Definitely boots. The Jack Gusset Boot and the Gordon Derby boot are our most popular styles.

KC: If you had to wear only one style of shoe for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

JCW: I would choose a Derby shoe or boot, but probably a boot; it’s the most practical. We designed the Gordon boot based on the small country town that we live in. It can be worn in all seasons and looks stylish to be dressed up or down depending on all the design features you choose.

KC: Being a professional in the shoemaking business, can you tell a lot about a man just by looking at his shoes?

JCW: I think, in our culture at least, the answer is no. I don’t think Australians, generally speaking, are well-versed in sartorial style and the options available to people are seriously limited. Often times, even if customers want to make a more selective choice, they just can’t. 

Image courtesy of Wootten

KC: What would you say to the individual who was still trying to decide whether or not to invest in a pair of hand made shoes?

JCW: Typically there are two reasons why people seek us out: to support local industry and a small business. The second is that they might be tired of the poor quality footwear and the questionable manufacturing practices they normally encounter. At Wootten we’re pretty straight up and honest, and our policy is not to be pushy. Prior to making their final choice, our clients spend a lot of time perusing our website and researching their options; deliberating. We are there to guide them through their best options when they’ve made the decision to walk through our doors. Ultimately, it’s important to us to make the highest quality footwear possible and build relationships with our customers. So we are far less inclined to push a strong sales pitch, and more inclined to listen to our customers and work out what’s best for them, whether that’s handmade footwear or not.   

Ready to take your footwear to the next level? Wootten’s current team possesses more than 40 years of combined experience, and are passionate about making your wildest shoe dreams a serious reality. If you’d like to experience the work of their artisans first-hand, Wootten have a retail space in Melbourne showcasing their ever-expanding collection of footwear and leather. 

To start your browsing—and dreaming—head to wootten.com.au. 

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